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Water, Sensory Experience and the Generation of Meaning

◆ V E R O N I CA S T R A N G
Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand

This article is concerned with the relationship between sensory experience,
material realities and the creation of cross-cultural meanings. Focused on
water, it offers a comparison of two, highly diverse, ethnographic examples:
one an Aboriginal community living alongside the Mitchell River in Far
North Queensland, and the other describing the groups inhabiting a river
valley in the south of England. It considers how engagements with water
are experienced and interpreted within these specific cultural contexts.
Drawing on theoretical developments from studies of art and material
culture, analyses of cross-cultural aesthetics, and accounts of how meanings
are encoded in natural objects, it describes the formal qualities of water and
human interactions with these. It suggests that two important ‘universali-
ties’ – the particular qualities of water, and the physiological and cognitive
processes that are common to all human beings – generate cross-cultural
themes of meaning that persist over time and space. Thus the ethnographic
analysis provides the basis for a discussion about the relationship between
universal and cultural experiences, contributing to the critique of cultural
relativism and suggesting a need for anthropological theory to recall its
comparative foundations.

Key Words ◆ cross-cultural meanings ◆ environmental anthropology ◆

sensory perception ◆ water

One of the long-term debates that has enlivened anthropology is the
extent to which scholars are willing or able to entertain ideas about

Journal of Material Culture Vol. 10(1): 92–120

Copyright © 2005 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)
92 [DOI: 10.1177/1359183505050096]
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universality in human experience. In the foundational stages of the disci-

pline, when anthropologists remained blithely unconcerned about the
comparative nature of their profession, ideas about common humanity
were debated without censure. Over the last 50 years, however, a
commitment to reject the political inequalities of the past, and to demon-
strate an equitable appreciation and respect for cultural specificity, has
made many practitioners wary about discussing cross-cultural issues,
particularly those concerned with meaning. This is an obstacle, because
however implicitly or explicitly it does this, anthropological analysis
depends upon some ‘meaningful’ comparison of the things that are
common to all human beings. As Bloch puts it:

There is a need for anthropologists to go beyond particularities, since . . .

the same themes come up again and again all over the world. This of course
does not mean ignoring the equally important fact that similarities between
symbolic systems are accompanied by a fundamental variability that it
would be methodologically misleading to forget . . . we must not construct
theories that seem to exclude the recognition of either historical specificities
or cross-cultural regularities. (Quoted in Rival, 1998: 43)

This suggests that anthropology needs to maintain a balance

between providing analyses of the issues that do permit comparison,
while also giving full acknowledgement to cultural specificities.
However, the challenge is not merely to embark upon a balancing act,
or to observe that these concepts are not mutually exclusive, but to effect
a reconciliation – an understanding of the relationship between the
physical, sensory and cognitive potentialities that all people share, and
the specific sociocultural and material contexts that different groups
inhabit and construct. How and why do broad themes of meaning recur
cross-culturally? And what leads to cultural differences in meaning? It
may be that the recognition of some degree of cross-cultural similarity
is useful partly because it also serves to elucidate cultural differences.
In exploring environmental issues, and most particularly in research-
ing the meanings and values that surround water and its use and manage-
ment, these questions are somewhat unavoidable. Numerous
ethnographies from around the world, in the most diverse of cultural
contexts, offer recurrent themes of meaning in relation to water.1 It there-
fore seems remiss – and indeed irrational – to ignore this accumulated
evidence and cling to the political safety of culturally specific ethnogra-
phy. In any case, this area of research presents an irresistible intellectual
opportunity, because water, as the most omnipresent and vitally import-
ant aspect of the environment, lends itself to an analysis of the relation-
ship between human experience and the construction of meaning.
In considering human–environmental engagement and how it is
made literally ‘meaningful’, anthropologists have stressed that meaning

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is socially constructed, and thus culturally specific (see Turner, 1968;

Geertz, 1973; Miller, 1998). There is plenty of ethnographic evidence to
support the contention that meaning is intensely cultural in its
formation. As Csikzentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton point out:

Meaning involves an active process of interpretation . . . the concept

accounts for the vast differences in the range of meanings that people
derived from the objects with which they interacted. The same culturally
legitimized object might provide only fleeting comfort to one person,
whereas to another it signified complex emotional and cognitive ties to other
people and ideas. (1981: xi)

They further argue that:

human beings never experience ‘raw’ instincts: even hunger and sexual
drives always appear in consciousness transformed and interpreted through
the network of signs one has learned from one’s culture. (Csikzentmihalyi
and Rochberg-Halton, 1981: 5)

What emerges from this literature is an understanding that meaning,

although interpreted individually, is a shared cultural product. As Reed
(1988, also cited in Ingold, 2000) notes, perceptions of the environment
are created via a prior sociality – a collective process, and Ingold suggests
that this prior sociality enables ‘the objectification of experience in
shared cultural categories’ (2000: 167). This is uncontroversial but it does
not answer the original question: why – if each group’s engagement is
culturally specific – do common themes of meaning recur in so many
cultural contexts? To assume some flow and exchange of meaning
between groups is reasonable, but this does not explain the persistent
continuity of recurrent themes in highly diverse and spatially distant
contexts. This question refuses to lie down: throughout relativist debates,
ideas about the potential for cross-cultural meanings have persisted,
backed by powerful evidence of recurrences (e.g. Douglas, 1973, 1975;
Rival, 1998).
Although there is no space here for a comprehensive review of the
literature dealing with this topic, it is useful to note some of the
theoretical models of human–environmental relationships that have
become, in the last decade or so, increasingly appreciative of the recur-
sive nature of human engagement with a sociocultural and physical
environment. For example, Descola and Palsson (1996) have observed
that human–environmental relations are mutually constitutive; and
Ingold describes ‘the reciprocal interplay between two kinds of systems,
social and ecological’ (2000: 4). A more materially grounded theory is
provided in Morphy’s model of cultural adaptation, which attempts to
reconcile human experience and the different temporal and material
realities of evolutionary, ecological and cultural change (1998 [1993]).

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A usefully phenomenological vision of human–environmental

engagement has been offered by Bourdieu’s concept of habitus (1977),
and Hegel’s depiction of a similarly dialectical relationship in which
humans project the ‘self’ into the environment and reincorporate this
projection (see Hegel, 1977; Miller, 1987; Strang, 1997). Writers on
performance have also observed that people create and project their
identities into the world (e.g. Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Boyer, 1996). Also
relevant in this respect are Horton and Finnegan’s ideas about how
humans use ‘familiar models’ conceptually (1973) and Bourdieu’s (1977)
observation of ‘scheme transfers’ that enable the transposition of
meanings and values from one frame of experience to another. And
Gell’s work on human agency and the ‘prosthetic’ extension of the self
into the world has usefully demonstrated the materialization of these
ideas (1992, 1998). Picking up on this theme, some writers (e.g. Mac-
Kenzie, 1991; Strang, 1999) have considered the homologous projection
of ideas about the human body and its processes into material objects
and the environment. This use of homologous models provides a useful
example, being indicative of a universal basis for human projection,
which implies a potential for shared meanings. Similarly, ideas projected
outwards also echo more abstract aspects of human experience and
processes of social change. As Rival comments, humans
need to find within the natural environment the material manifestation of
organic processes that can be recognised as similar to those characterising
the human life cycle, or the continued existence of social groups. (1998: 7)

There are equally diverse approaches to considering the human

mind and its processes of cognition. Early analyses include Levi-Strauss-
ian arguments about underlying universals (1974), and Bateson’s
‘ecology of mind’ (1973). Following Gibson’s ideas about environmental
‘affordances’ (1979), Ingold presents ‘the mind’ as an active process that
facilitates the movement of the human organism through its environ-
ment (2000: 168). This is helpful because it takes the mind out of the
body, offering a concept, as he puts it, of ‘mind as extending outwards
into the environment along multiple sensory pathways’ (2000: 18). The
idea of sensory ‘pathways’ highlights a reality that perception and
sensory experience provide a two-way street in which there is a dynamic
interaction between cultural beliefs and values, processes of perception,
and external stimuli. The inculcation and embodiment of sensory and
emotional experience are also relevant in considering the formation of
consciousness and the creation of values (see Damasio, 1999; Milton,
Anthropologists interested in understanding sensory experience (e.g.
Howes, 1991, 2003; Stoller, 1989) have observed that sensory faculties
are accorded significantly different priority in diverse cultural contexts.

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Thus Bender notes the greater valorization of vision in western societies

(1998) and Feld (1982) has pointed to the prioritization of sound in forest-
dwelling groups. But although these analyses have underlined the
importance of acculturation in sensory experience, they also point to
environmental differences that suggest that the cultural outcomes are at
least partially constituted by external factors. The importance of environ-
mental stimuli in the construction of meaning is also underlined by work
on cross-cultural aesthetics: for example Gell’s analyses of the visual
effects of Trobriand canoes (1992) and Morphy’s descriptions of the way
that an idea of ‘shine’ or ‘brilliance’ as an emanation of regenerative
forces recurs in some very different cultural settings (1989, 1993).
A willingness to acknowledge the role of external stimuli is obvi-
ously important in considering how cultural meanings are constructed
in relation to natural objects. Although writers on material culture have
elucidated the importance of cultural landscapes and human artefacts as
repositories of meaning, the natural elements of the environment have
generally received less attention and analysis of this kind. When they
have been considered, the focus has generally been on the way that
humans encode and infer meaning in relation to them, rather than their
capacity to suggest meaning. Some movement towards acknowledging
the importance of the material environment itself is suggested by
Dominy’s work on introduced grasses, in which she describes ‘the land
and its biota as actors in colonialist and post-colonialist processes’ (2003:
56). Garner similarly frames New Forest trees as ‘semi-actants’ (2002),
and, also working on trees, Rival observes that ‘natural symbols are not
just projections or metaphors of social life’ (1998: 4). Although this has
been controversial, some anthropologists (e.g. Berlin et al., 1973; Berlin,
1992) have considered the formal characteristics of aspects of the natural
environment, and how these mesh with pan-human understandings:

Observed structural and substantive typological regularities found among

systems of ethnobiological classification of traditional peoples from
many parts of the world can be best explained in terms of human beings’
similar perceptual and largely unconscious appreciation of the natural
affinities among groupings of plants and animals in their environment.
(Berlin, 1992: xi)

This theme is picked up in Atran’s work on people’s understandings

of ‘living kinds’ (1990) and Rival’s and others’ explorations of tree
symbolism (Rival, 1998). But as Bloch points out (1998: 48), there are
some problems with confining this discussion either to ‘living kinds’ or
artefacts. The ethnographic evidence presented here suggests that there
is a strong case for examining this issue much more broadly and
incorporating a Gibsonian approach that considers the ‘direct percep-
tion’ of the physical qualities of the environment itself, and traces the

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connections between this perception and the construction of meaning.

As Franca Tamisari notes (pers. comm.), this approach allows us to
consider not only the formation of common meanings, but also to
consider the environmental, social and historical factors that lead to
cultural diversity.
Building on previous work (Strang, 2004a), this article therefore
employs an analytic approach more usually applied to material culture
to consider the characteristics of what might be termed a ‘non-living
kind’ (as in Atran, 1990), or a ‘non-artefact’.2 In this case, obviously, the
subject is water but, in theoretical terms, this argument could be as
readily applied to other elements – earth, air or fire – or any regularly
encountered aspect of the material environment. The thesis proposed is
that the formal qualities and characteristics of the object – whatever it
is – are crucial in that they provide a common basis for the construction
of meaning. Equally critical to this discussion is an acknowledgement
that (while acknowledging minor evolutionary adaptations) in general
terms humans share common sensory and perceptual processes,
although their experiences are, as noted previously, also composed of
culturally specific beliefs and expectations, learned behaviours and
embodied predispositions.
In order to try to demonstrate this thesis, several things are
examined: firstly, in accord with other material analyses, attention is
given to the qualities of water and the sensory experiences that these
provide. Secondly, some evidence is presented concerning the common
themes of meaning encoded in water in two highly disparate ethno-
graphic contexts: one composed of the groups inhabiting the catchment
area of the River Stour in Dorset, in the south of England (Figure 1), and
the other drawn from research with an Australian Aboriginal community
located in Far North Queensland, at the western end of the Mitchell
River. The article considers how the meanings that emerge in the ethno-
graphic data reflect the qualities of water, and the ways in which these
are universally experienced. The article attempts to show that, although
meaning is a human product, the environment is not a tabula rasa, but
instead provides elements whose consistent characteristics are the basis
for meanings that flow cross-culturally, creating common undercurrents
in culturally specific engagements and interpretations.


There is probably more poetry, more literature and more art describing
the form of water than any other aspect of the environment. Apart from
the air, it is the most omnipresent and the most essential part of the
world that humans inhabit. The formal properties of water remain
constant in every context: it will freeze, thaw and evaporate at the same

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temperature, precipitate under similar conditions, describe predictable

patterns of flow in response to topographic forms, and retains consistent
visual and audial characteristics in its various forms.
In accord with the diversity of the environments in which it is found,
water has many forms: sometimes – as in Dorset – arriving with reliably
frequent precipitation; sometimes partially immobilized in ice for much
of the year; or – as in northern Australia – sometimes temporarily
abundant in the form of monsoonal floods or painfully scarce, confined
to a few well hidden springs and subtle underground flows.
Water’s diversity is, in some respects, a key to its meanings. Here is
an object that is endlessly transmutable, moving readily from one shape
to another: from ice to stream, from vapour to rain, from fluid to steam.
It has an equally broad range of scales of existence: from droplet to
ocean, trickle to flood, cup to lake. The steam condensing on a kitchen
window after a kettle has been boiled performs the same cycle of
movement and metamorphosis as the clouds forming rain above the
ocean, then precipitating down the mountainsides of the nearest land-
mass. This process of transformation never ceases: water is always
undergoing change, movement and progress. Captured in a cup or pond
or lake, it evaporates or escapes and runs away: it is always physically
flowing from one place to another in streams, torrents, waves and
currents. Even in the calmest of conditions, its qualities are such that it

FIGURE 1 The Stour Inn: a well known ‘watering hole’ in Dorset.

Photo: the author

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reflects the most subtle changes in light, and so shimmers with

The ways in which humans experience these fluid qualities are as
diverse as the contexts in which this interaction occurs. Clearly there are
some aspects of engagement with water – particularly in landscapes
dominated by ice, or by other extreme conditions – that are highly
specific to these environments, but even in these there are some experi-
ences of water that are more broadly shared, and opportunities to
observe universally consistent hydrological processes. Thus, if we accept
that most of the qualities of water are present in most environments, and
the ‘multiple sensory pathways’ engaging with them recur cross-
culturally, it is possible to pursue some broad themes.

The most obvious reality about water is that it is as essential to the
human body as it is to all living organisms, large and small. In a very
immediate sense, therefore, humans share an experience of water as the
substance that is most vital to their continued existence. At an individual
level, they cannot survive for more than a few hours without ingesting
and incorporating it. On a daily basis they are therefore confronted with
inescapable evidence that it is integral to their own bodies, and consti-
tutes the major part of their substance. In some cultural groups this is
stated explicitly: for example, in the Dorset research cited here, every
person interviewed was fully aware that the human body is largely
composed of water and indeed many overestimated the percentage of
water.3 As one woman put it:
People do love water don’t they? Perhaps it’s an inborn thing, knowing that it’s
so vital to our life. I don’t know – we feel part of it don’t we. You feel at one with
water don’t you. (Beryl Coward)

In North Queensland, Aboriginal informants referred to this more ellip-

tically, in discourses about how the country from which they come
‘grows them up’ and constitutes their identity. The implication is similar
though, in accepting that the incorporation of water is integral to the
composition of the self and one’s identity.
As many anthropologists have noted in writing about food and drink,
any process of incorporation is ‘an act laden with meaning’ (Fischler,
1988: 277). Caplan describes it as a process through which selfhood is
defined and boundaries created (1997) and, as Lupton notes: ‘Food and
eating are central to our subjectivity, or sense of self, and our experience
of embodiment, or the ways that we live in and through our bodies’
(1996: 1).
Integral to ingestion is the sense of smell, which along with taste

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enables people to evaluate water quality. As Howes notes, smells are

invariably powerful stimuli, being ‘ideally suited to expressing the
notion of contagion or action at a distance’ (1991: 141). Perceptions of
water quality are based on quite specific parameters of neutrality: if it
smells, it is assumed to be tainted. The tasting and smelling of water and
judgements about its purity are thus intimately connected with concepts
of pollution that, as Douglas observed (1966), are readily transferred to
other human ‘systems’.
Another compelling sensory experience that humans have with
water is via physical contact with it. Showering and bathing provide a
range of experiences that are potentially either pleasurable or less enjoy-
able in direct relation to the degree to which they reflect a coherence
between the desired temperature of the human body and that of the
water. In other words, if the water provides thermal equilibrium (or
compensates for the lack of it by warming or cooling the body), it is
pleasurable, but when it is oppositional to this need it is more likely to
be experientially unpleasant.
One of the most compelling sensory experiences of water is that
of immersion, which can also be either fearful and/or highly pleasur-
able. There is a rich and varied literature dealing with immersion
which includes many poetic depictions of the sensory pleasures of
swimming, which has been described as ‘fornication avec l’onde’ (in
Sprawson, 1992: 101), and recurring ideas about the relationship
between immersion and a ‘return to the womb’ (Johnson and Odent,
1994). Though informants in Dorset said little about fornicating with
the waves, they regularly and spontaneously drew this latter parallel.
As one put it:

Maybe it’s something to do with the womb – maybe it’s something we come into
this world with. A lot of people do seem to take to water, or enjoy it that way.
It’s very soothing to have water in the garden isn’t it? . . . It just seems to be a
soothing thing to hear water running. It’s a natural sound, and to stay at still
water, or a slowly flowing river, it’s a very calming thing. (Colin Marsh)

Many scientific texts dealing with immersion emerged alongside an

interest in space travel and weightlessness (e.g. McCally, 1968), but in
recent years these have reflected a growing interest in the psychological
and therapeutic effects revealed by experimental immersions (e.g.
Suedfeld et al., 1983). The literature on flotation experiments suggests
that immersion, as well as producing measurable physiological effects,
also generates consistent sensory and cognitive responses, with subjects
reporting heightened imaginative activity, relaxation and feelings of well-
As well as having direct physical interactions with water, humans
have the opportunity on a daily basis to observe the presence of water

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in their environments.4 On a grand scale, as Tuan has noted, the

hydrological cycle and its various manifestations provide a potentially
universal model of change and transformation, as illustrated, for
example, by its use in ‘natural theology’ and in the earth sciences: ‘For
at least 150 years the concept of the hydrological cycle . . . was the hand-
maiden of natural theology as much as a child of natural philosophy’
(Tuan, 1968: 4).
All societies necessarily pay close attention to the effects of water in
their environments, whether this is a concern about the production of
resources or crops, the availability of fish and other aquatic resources,
the watering of cattle, the need for rain, or the prevention of floods. All
know that their own physical reproduction and that of everything in the
landscape depends upon there being the right amount of water at the
right time. In this sense, water is inescapably not only the substance of
their individual physical survival, but also the substance of all produc-
tion and reproduction.
Their daily observations and experiences of water are accompanied
by other important sensory inputs. Water is visually compelling, to the
extent that many writers have described it as ‘numinous’ and hypnotic
(e.g. Haslam, 1991: 281), a view that was certainly upheld by informants
in Dorset who regularly reported that gazing upon water was ‘mesmer-
izing’, or induced ‘meditative’ states of being. As one said:
Rivers . . . they are superb for meditating aren’t they? – the fact that you can lean
over a bridge and look down. I find them enormously compelling and calming,
with far more power than I ever feel inside a church. (Rodney Legg)

It is worth noting that, until relatively recently in human history, water

was the major ‘mirror’ for many people, providing a singularly powerful
opportunity to see a visual image of themselves, and thus observe them-
selves reflexively. It is therefore not surprising to find recurrent cosmo-
logical ideas in which water is believed to hold the ‘image’ or ‘spirit’ of
the person.
There are more pragmatic considerations: as Schiffman has pointed
out, ‘the physical stimulus for the visual system is light’ (1996: 46), and
as Watt notes: ‘the intensity of light in the image of a surface depends
on the luminance of the surface and how it is being imaged. The surface
behaves like a light source when it reflects light’ (1991: 42). Being highly
luminescent, water both reflects light and scatters it, acting as a shifting
light source that Vernon suggests coheres with the patterns of neural
activity arising from the effect of light and movement upon the retina
(1962: 14).5 This provides a potential explanation for its ‘hypnotic’
qualities and its ability to induce powerfully affective responses.
Similarly, many informants noted the mesmerizing effects of the
audial stimuli provided by water, Depending on the type of sound –

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whether it was exciting (as in waterfalls) or soft and lulling – this was
described as invigorating, relaxing, meditative or hypnotic.
The magic of waterfalls, there’s one you go to, and you feel good, that’s great.
(Bing Spencer)
Even if I am only watching the waves coming in and out, I just seem to get lost
in it, and its restless energy . . . the process, just being at one with the elements
I suppose, at one with nature. (Richard Lacey)

In considering sensory responses to water in the environment, it is

useful to return to discussions about cross-cultural aesthetics. As Gell
We have, somehow, to retain the capacity of the aesthetic approach to illumi-
nate the specific objective characteristics of the art object as an object rather
than as a vehicle for extraneous social and symbolic messages. (Quoted in
Coote and Shelton, 1992: 43)

Though referring here to material culture, this debate is readily trans-

ferable to consider the affective responses engendered by other material
objects or non-material environmental stimuli. For example, Sloboda
notes the affective responses produced by music (1985), and Turnbull
describes people’s intense responses to sounds and their ability to enable
transition from one state to another:
Few of us . . . pay nearly enough attention to the use of the senses of smell,
taste, and touch, or to non-verbal sound. Yet these, particularly sound, are
often key elements in ritual and other religious behaviour. (1995: 77)

There is no reason why these forms of analysis cannot be equally

applied to ‘natural’6 aspects of the environment. It is clear that the
qualities of water are such that it offers a range of compelling sensory
stimuli, and that these produce powerful aesthetic and affective
responses. It is therefore reasonable to suggest that the meanings
emergent from the highly intimate and comprehensive engagement that
humans have with water will demonstrate some of the consistencies of
their common experiences. To consider this possibility, it is useful to
compare different ethnographic contexts and their use of water to
express meaning.

The examples offered here have both been the focus of long-term ethno-
graphic research into human–environmental interaction, and they
provide a usefully disparate comparison. The first cultural context is
provided by Kowanyama, an Aboriginal community in northern
Australia, on the western coast of the Cape York Peninsula in Far North

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F I G U R E 2 Ikow, a sacred site at the junction of the Alice and Mitchell Rivers
in Far North Queensland.
Photo: the author

Queensland (Figure 2). There is extensive ethnography describing the

community and its environmental relationships (Sharp, 1937; Strang,
1997) and more specific work on its engagements with water (Strang,
2002, 2004b), but to give a very brief reprise: Kowanyama is composed
of approximately 1100 people, from three main language groups: Yir
Yoront, Kokobera and Kunjen.7 A former mission reserve area, it covers
approximately 1000 square miles, although the traditional land of its
inhabitants extends a good deal further. Kowanyama shares with all of
Australia’s indigenous communities a history of European colonization
and settlement, and as in others in the remote areas of the country, this
is relatively recent. Thus the community has incorporated numerous
European cultural practices while also retaining many traditional social
and political structures, economic activities, beliefs, values and modes
of environmental engagement.
The other case study is provided by recent research on water use
and management in the Stour Valley in Dorset. Again, there is a detailed
ethnographic account (Strang, 2004a) but, to give a brief sketch, this is
a wealthy rural county, with fertile valleys and rich farmland (Figure 3).

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Situated on the southern coast of England, it has experienced many

invasions over the centuries: of Celtic tribes, Romans, Danes, Saxons and
Normans, and more recently – and perhaps most traumatically – hordes
of retired stockbrokers from London.
Dorset has a well-documented history, and it appears that the
meanings of water in this cultural context demonstrate remarkable
consistency over time, despite all of the invasions. This is an important
point because if the thesis of this article, that underlying themes of
meaning are cross-cultural, is correct, then these should also demon-
strate temporal consistency. The archaeological, historic and ethno-
graphic evidence from Dorset suggests that this is indeed the case.
Although each temporal context has brought its own beliefs, interpre-
tations and idioms, the core meanings of water have simply flowed on
into new shapes and forms. Similarly, although more reliant upon oral
history, the meanings of water in North Queensland also seem to have
retained considerable temporal consistency.
It is worth touching
upon the methodology used F I G U R E 3 The chalk downs of the Stour
to collect the data described Valley.
here. In both ethnographic Photo: the author
contexts, long-term re-
search has been carried out,
using conventional anthro-
pological methods: partici-
pant observation, inter-
views, linguistic analysis,
material culture analysis,
cultural mapping, photo or
word elicitations and in-
vestigation of archaeological
and historical records.
Particular attention has been
paid to the rituals, material
artefacts and everyday prac-
tices through which mean-
ing is expressed, and to the
use of water imagery and
metaphor in language,
stories, and other represen-
tational forms such as maps,
art, poetry and music. One
of the most persuasive
outcomes of the research
was that it brought to the

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surface the way that, in every language, water provides an endless well
of metaphorical imagery that people use to describe process and change
in every aspect of their lives. As Lakoff and Johnson’s work has made
clear (1980), water is the ultimate metaphor of fluidity. And as Illich says:
‘The water we seek is the fluid that drenches the inner and outer spaces
of the imagination . . . water has a nearly unlimited ability to carry
metaphors’ (1986: 24). Given the omnipresence of water in so many
aspects of life, there is a vast amount of material to consider. The follow-
ing section can only summarize some of the major themes and offer a few
illustrative comparisons.


The overarching theme, which in many ways contains all of the other
meanings encoded in water, is that water is the literally ‘essential’ matter
of life and death. As Eliade put it nearly 50 years ago: ‘Water symbol-
izes the whole of potentiality; it is the fons et origo, the source of all
possible existence’ (1958: 188). It is therefore unsurprising to find that
hydrolatry – water worship of one sort or another – occurs in every
cultural and temporal context, and that even in the most secular
cosmologies, water is presented as the fundamental source of life.8 In
Dorset this belief has been expressed since the earliest Celtic inhabitants
made sacrifices and votive offerings to their local deities at holy wells.
These practices were echoed by the Romans, whose Fontanalia rituals
celebrating their own water goddesses have made a comeback as modern
well-dressing ceremonies. As Bord and Bord point out (1985), thousands
of wells in Britain have a lengthy history as containers of deities, spiritual
forces, ghosts and supernatural powers.
The imposition of Christianity that subsumed Pagan cosmological
beliefs reframed the ‘water of life’ considerably. Biblical descriptions
demonstrate a shift from ancient visions of water as a source or person-
ification of god-ness (primarily female) to a more ‘rational’ and abstract
vision of ‘living water’ as the product of a single male God. In this
Durkheimian masculinization of water9 its goddesses were consigned to
mythology, where they continued to provide a persistent stream of
subversive imagery. However, even with the ascendance of the patriar-
chal Christian God, homologous Biblical imagery retained a vision of
water as the essence of life. As Tuan notes:
The symbolism of water is extremely rich in the Bible and in the exegetical
literature of the Church Fathers: the water is the living water of the fountain
which cleanses, washes away the stains of sin, quenches thirst, refreshes
the People of God, and is fruitful. Showers are signs of God’s pleasure: over
the restored Holy Land showers of rain and dew will make the sand and
wilderness bear fruit (Isaiah, 35). (Tuan, 1968: 57)

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With the Enlightenment, water became a ‘fountainhead’ of spiritual

knowledge and wisdom, and eventually, under the weight of Rational-
ism, the ‘living water’ of the Bible was overtaken by a more Cartesian
vision of water as H2O. However, the flow of ideas and images linking
water and the spirit has not evaporated (Figure 4), and even in a
primarily secular cosmos, water is still presented as the ‘essence’ of a
living, functioning ecology of existence – the medium for the ‘cycle of
life’ now taught to schoolchildren in Dorset.
Whether as a religious or secular essence, water is also regularly
used as a metaphor of time, appearing in songs and poems as a ‘river of
life’ that contains the time/life of all individuals, with its headwaters or
source signifying birth, and its consummation with the sea a reconcilia-
tion of death and rebirth. As Illich comments:

All Indo-Germanic pilgrims – Greek, Indic, Nordic and Celtic – cross the
same funereal landscape on their way to the beyond, and the mythical
hydrology on that route is the same: at the end of their journey they reach
a body of water. This water separates two worlds: it divides the present from
the past into which the dead move. (1986: 30)

FIGURE 4 Well head used as grave marker Thus in Dorset, holy

at St Mary’s Church, Brownsea Island, water has long been part of
Dorset. rituals marking the begin-
Photo: the author ning and end of life, as well
as its journey through time,
and its wells and springs
stand for the unsullied
nascent spirituality. For
example, at Stour Head
(Figure 5), the spring that is
the source of the river is
housed in a grotto at the
heart of Henry Hoare’s
famous landscaped garden,
which celebrates this ‘foun-
tainhead’ with a series of
religious and classical
images and artefacts. Like
other local springs, this
provides a sacred site not
only for the Christian
beliefs held by some
groups, but also for neo-
Pagans, whose efforts to
revive Celtic appreciation

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of ‘the goddess’ or ‘Mother Earth’ provide the impetus – and the imagery
– for many local water rituals.
There are many sacred sites to consider in the Antipodean ethnog-
raphy, and the vast majority of them are water sources of one kind or
another. In Kowanyama, Aboriginal ideas about the human life cycle are
conceptualized on a less abstract scale, being located in the immediate
landscape. According to local beliefs (which also carry a more recent
overlay of Christianity) spirit children generated by the ancestral forces
held within the landscape ‘jump up’ from the water and enliven the
foetus in a woman’s womb. Each individual’s spirit thus emerges from
a particular water source, and must be returned to this source when the
person dies, to be reunited with the pool of ancestral forces (Figure 6).
As one elder explained, his spirit would be returned home:
My home, errk elampungk10 . . . Go back to same place. Go back there . . . home
bla we again.11 Where him born, you know. (Lefty Yam)

As in other parts of Australia, a central image of this process is the

figure of the Rainbow Serpent that is described locally as ‘the Rainbow’
from which all human life comes, and which represents the other ‘half’
of the rainbow visible above the land. In essence, this invisible, hidden
half is an alternative dimension of existence that is simultaneously the
human past and future. It is therefore a highly localized equivalent to

FIGURE 5 The gardens at Stourhead.

Photo: the author

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the ‘great sink’ that is the sea of spiritual ‘potentiality’ in the western
traditions expressed in Dorset. In effect, in both ethnographic contexts,
the hydrological cycle mediates concepts of birth, life, death and rebirth,
providing a way of visualizing, conceptualizing and describing the gener-
ation and reintegration of human life/time and spiritual being.

In any ethnographic context, with Durkheimian predictability, spiritual
and social identity are intertwined, and water remains critical to
baptismal rituals. In church rituals in Dorset, children are splashed with
water to signify their inclusion into a particular ‘congregation’. There is
also a growing trend amongst Baptist Church groups for adults to be
‘born again’ into particular religious communities through immersion in
specially constructed baptisteries or, increasingly, in local rivers and
lakes. There is obvious coherence between the qualities of water and its
ability to join separate flows, and the metaphors of inclusion and absorp-
tion that characterize constructions of religious and social identity and
the ‘flowing together’ of individual life times.

F I G U R E 6 Alma Wason, a Kunjen elder, at Ikow, a sacred site near her

‘home’ place.
Photo: the author

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As the shared substance of a community, water also links social

groups physically and topographically. In the Stour Valley, many villages
are still centred on the mills (Figure 7) that provided their original raison
d’etre,12 and are socially and economically linked by the flowing Stour
and its tributaries.13 People use the Stour to describe the socio-spatial
relationships between linked communities ‘up’ and ‘down’ river, and
also to define the collective identity of the inhabitants of the river valley
as a whole. As elsewhere in Britain, local discourses about social identity
also make abundant use of water imagery to describe community and
its potential ‘pollution’ by others, fearing that they (as the Labour Home
Secretary, David Blunkett commented so controversially in, 2003)14
might ‘swamp’ them with alternative identities.
This serves as a reminder that as a ‘matter of substance’ – as the
major part of human blood and physical composition – water is integral
to constructions of social identity. As such, its vulnerability to pollution
readily engenders a scheme transfer in which anxieties about social
relations are translated into concerns about water quality. The Dorset
research suggested that, although people were relaxed about the quality
of local water sources over which they exerted collective control, they
were much more anxious about quality issues when supplies were
owned or controlled by foreign agencies with whom they had no social
relationship. The preponderance of the latter reality in a socially

FIGURE 7 One of the remaining mill sites in the Stour Valley.

Photo: the author

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fragmented post-privatization context clearly relates to widespread

concerns about water quality and a preference – despite the costs – for
drinking bottled water that, taken direct from a spring, is perceived to
be unadulterated by ‘otherness’.
On the other side of the planet, baptismal rituals in Kowanyama
introduce newcomers – babies or adults – to the ancestral forces held in
the land, and are thus similarly intended to offer inclusion in a local
identity.15 Like the rituals in Dorset, Aboriginal baptisms centre on the
use of water and social substance. In Kowanyama, this entails the
pouring of water over the initiate’s head, or the rubbing of sweat onto
them from the families connected to that country. The sentient ancestral
forces held in the sacred water places will then ‘recognize’ the new-
comers as members of the local community and provide resources for
them. The totemic ancestors also provide a topographical network of kin
relations, connecting clans via the ancestral tracks that, more often than
not, move along and remain immanent in the watercourses, connecting
sacred sites all over the peninsula. Clans are commonly defined by their
spatial relationships to particular water places, or to certain types of
water, and they are often described accordingly, for example being
associated with floodwater, saltwater, or freshwater.
In a variety of ways, water therefore provides ‘substantial’ connec-
tions between Aboriginal groups, and signifies belonging – or non-
belonging. Situated at the end of the Mitchell River, the community in
Kowanyama is deeply concerned about the pollution of its water sources
from economic activities upstream: mining, which uses cyanide and
other poisons and increases the turbidity of the water; cattle farming,
which erodes the delicate soils in the region and degrades the aquatic
ecosystems; and intensive agriculture, which contributes a variety of
chemicals and nutrients to the river catchment. Indigenous concerns
about water are social as well as environmental. As noted elsewhere
(Strang, 2004b), discourses about the river, pollution and the flow of
water across the peninsula simultaneously provide an elliptical critique
of the more ephemeral invasions of ‘otherness’ that have followed – and
continue to follow – the Mitchell River westwards.

The concept that the sharing of substance entitles people to a share in
resources highlights another important theme of meaning, in which
water provides the basis for metaphorical depictions of socioeconomic
order and the maintenance of systemic health and wealth. Water
imagery is used in a series of scheme transfers that describe the health
of the human body, of social groups, of economic systems and of the
environment. All depend upon ideas of ‘proper’ flow and balance or, in

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other words, upon a regulation of physical and moral order. In Dorset,

descriptions of physical imbalances caused by dehydration were echoed
in concerns about over-abstraction and the ‘drying up’ of streams and
rivers, and the same terms were used to describe economic and social
movements of people and resources.
This highlights another important ‘universal’ issue, that homologous
concepts employing water imagery are ubiquitous. In Dorset, terms used
to describe the landscape being drained and deprived of water were used
interchangeably with criticisms about resource ownership and distri-
bution, which were often framed in terms such as money being ‘pouring
into the wrong pockets’ or of cash ‘flowing’ in the wrong direction. This
is particularly evident in people’s comments regarding the privatization
of water: it appears that – although it is now well over a decade since
this event – their resentment over what they see as an enclosure of the
most vital commons remains undiminished.
In Cape York, at a meeting between local Aboriginal groups,
members of the communities on the west coast used similar metaphors
to complain that powerful regional bodies located on the east coast had
diverted or impeded the flow of funding across the peninsula:
Black leaders today are on cloud nine, but forget to send rain down onto the land
. . . and when I talk about the rain, that comes every year and gives life to the
land, I am talking about the life of a human being. (Richard Aken)

Used to describe a series of systems, water imagery enables multi-

valent meanings that are generally directed towards socio-genesis (see
Schapera, 1971; Lansing, 1991; Morphy, 1991, 1998; Sanders, 2003). In
effect, this points to a central theme of meaning concerned with regener-
ation, not just of the human spirit (which may be said to encapsulate all
of these), but also social, political, economic and environmental repro-
duction. In this sense, water is the ultimate symbol of energy, potency
and the ability to extend human agency outwards into the world. As
noted previously, this is often framed in spiritual terms: the goddess in
the well, the ‘living water’, the Rainbow serpent. As well as providing a
vision of generative life-force though, these are also images of other
kinds of human power and agency.

In Dorset, St Augustine’s, as the holy well has been known since its
Christianization, is located at the foot of the famous Cerne Abbas Giant,
a particularly potent Neolithic fertility symbol. According to local
informants, couples hoping to conceive try to improve their odds by
making surreptitious (though apparently insufficiently discreet) use of
the field on which the Giant lies. The use of local holy wells to assist

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fertility has been reported for thousands of years. St Augustine’s itself

was a centre for pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, and Irvine reports that
‘the spring water was considered to be a cure for infertility among
women’ (1989: 40). Bord and Bord (1985) describe healing and fertility
rituals at many holy wells throughout Britain, and it is clear that these
usages segued into a more ‘medical’ approach when, later on, springs
became ‘health spas’ and people ‘took the waters’ for various ailments.
Their original meaning has been retained, though, in neo-Pagan rituals
of well dressing, which are currently undergoing a resurgence in Britain,
and – in keeping with the idea of collective substance – are used to cele-
brate the idea of community.16 The holly tree beside St Augustine’s well
regularly bears ribbons, and there are many other votive offerings and
rituals focused on this and other local wells and pools.
In Kowanyama, increase rituals carried out at various water sources
are aimed directly at the encouragement of social and economic repro-
duction. For example at a site called Baby Story Place, the scattering of
soil from around the water is believed to encourage intensified sexual
activity amongst young women.
He a story place girl, you can’t take that mud, back this way, [throw it] all over
. . . If you do that, all gonna have baby, everyone. All them young [women].
(Nelson Brumby)

At other sites similar ritual practices (which also include singing, dancing
and the scattering of leaves or bark) enable the ‘increase’ of fish, birds,
snakes, wallabies, or the bringing of rain to improve feed for game. Thus
human groups ritually encourage the ancestral beings to provide
resources at sites devoted to particular species. For example, at one site,
the ancestral Rainbow left a dilly (string) bag full of flying foxes which
has been a key source of this popular food source ever since:
He left that dilly bag there. Rainbow left it there. Flying fox, they come out of
there, they go up that tree, you know where that big swamp? They still there today,
still going, flying fox, they go everywhere. (Lefty Yam)

As well as supplying food to their own totemic clans, the ancestral beings
are believed to punish transgressors, causing people who trespass or fail
to observe propriety to be injured, fall sick, or die.
In Dorset, many wells still carry echoes of beliefs in which they were
seen to have sentient abilities to foretell the future, discern sin, and exact
punishment. There are records of a number of ‘cursing wells’ in Britain,
and the draining of lakes has also been said to cause storms and other
forms of retribution. In modern Dorset, as in other parts of England, a
local legend persists to the effect that the Stour demands an annual
human sacrifice,17 and this is repeated in the media whenever there is a
drowning in the river. Such stories underline a reality that water always

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contains the potential to be benign or harmful, and that the safety of

interactions with it depends upon sufficient human control of the
This returns us to the theme that water in the landscape is invari-
ably encoded with powers of life and death. In Australia, the ancestral
Rainbow is understood to have played a key role in the Dreamtime
creation of the landscape and its resources, as well as being responsible
for maintaining the well-being of these. Thus one Rainbow place near
Kowanyama, holds a story relating how the Rainbow tore through the
land, leaving a major river bubbling up in its wake. In another, the
Rainbow submerged in a large waterhole is said to have swallowed a
young man fishing there without permission.
As ethnographers have noted in many different parts of the world,
cosmologies concerned with Rainbow Serpents or Rainbow beings often
record the swallowing and regurgitation of humans.18 As well as medi-
ating transitions between life and death, this is also conceptualized as a
metaphor of transformation through knowledge. Thus in Kowanyama to
‘pass through the Rainbow’ entails a ritual of immersion and emergence
that is directed towards achieving restricted shamanic knowledge – in
becoming what is now called a ‘witchdoctor’.19
Various historic references in Dorset touch upon this theme: for
example, Bord and Bord note that:
In Celtic lore the hazel is clearly associated with wells and water. The spring
of Segais, in the Land of Promise was . . . the source of all knowledge. Hazel
trees grew around it, and their nuts fell into the water, producing bubbles
of inspiration, or being eaten by the salmon of knowledge. (1985: 4)

A similar idea emerges in Christian imagery of the ‘Fountainhead’

which, as previously observed, is the source of all knowledge and
wisdom. Along with the Biblical imagery, as Schama notes:
The ultimate origin was represented as a fountainhead. A contemporary of
Seneca, Philo Judaeus, commenting on the rivers of paradise, had described
a fons sapientiae: the mystically revealed union of goodness, beauty and
wisdom. (1996: 267)

In contemporary Dorset, the meaning of water as a symbol of power
emerges more often in discourses about owning water and having social
power and agency. Aspirational visions of wealth focus on swimming
pools and giant fountains, and local expressions of wealth and status
frequently centre on the ownership of riparian land, or the construction
of lakes and water features in the garden. This theme also emerges in
patterns of usage within the domestic sphere, where abundant water

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stands for social well-being,

and deprivation of water is
a classic symbol of poverty.
In a competitive social
economy this has led to a
highly intractable increase
in per capita levels of water
use, particularly in external
visible forms, such as garden
sprinkling. It was also plain
in Dorset that unremitting
resentment about water
privatization was closely
linked to the meanings of
water as encoding wealth
and agency, and with
concomitant concerns about
particular groups’ acqui-
sition of essential resources,
and the dispossession and
disenfranchisement of the
majority. F I G U R E 8 Floodmarkers at the township
Such issues are equally waterhole in Kowanyama, which provides
relevant in Kowanyama, a key water place for the community.
Photo: the author
where land ownership
among traditional land-
owners is most strongly
defined by the water places that define spiritual and social loci of power
in clan land (Figure 8). Anger about colonial dispossession is often
expressed through protests about the way in which water places have
been compromised by European activity, and the regaining of land and
the sacred water sites is seen as essential to the re-establishment of
Aboriginal autonomy and self-sufficiency. As one elder put it, describing
the destruction of an important sacred site:
They took the land away from us and gave it to somebody you know, and say ‘all
right you can graze your cattle there, on that country’ . . . As soon as they bin
come along, they push ‘em out, put a big dozer in there, doze ‘em all out, went
right to the bottom of it and just buggered the waterhole up. And that place is a
Story Place. That’s what I think we worried about – mainly them story ground
bla we – they most important thing to Aboriginal people . . . That lagoon there,
that was a beautiful lagoon, but he gone dry now, because everything all buggered
up. (Colin Lawrence)

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The ethnographies reveal some major themes of meaning, presenting
water as a matter of life and death; as a potent generative, and regener-
ative force; as the substance of social and spiritual identity; and as a
symbol of power and agency.
These meanings permeate all aspects of human life: the social, the
spiritual, the economic, the political and the environmental. They flow
into every interaction with water, whether personal, familial or collec-
tive, literal or metaphorical. The Antipodean comparison – situated in a
much wider ethnographic literature from around the world – suggests
that, though cultural specific and diverse in form, the broad themes of
meanings encoded in water are similar in substance, providing import-
ant undercurrents of commonality.
These commonalities appear to arise directly from two major factors.
One is the observable and experiential characteristics of water: its essen-
tiality; its fluidity and transmutability; and its aesthetic qualities. At
local, national and global scales, these qualities enable scheme transfers
from one vision of systemic order to another, offering both a medium
and metaphor of change and transformation. Water’s characteristics
remain constant at micro and macro levels, and pertain in every environ-
mental context, providing a literally substantial basis for cross-cultural
meanings, while the particularities of each social and environmental
context generate myriad cultural variations on these broad themes.
Equally important are human sensory and perceptual experiences of
the qualities of water. Though – like its qualities – these are shaped and
influenced by particular cultural landscapes and engagements with
water, it appears that common human physiological and cognitive
processes provide sufficient experiential continuity to generate common
undercurrents of meaning. These undercurrents persist over time and
space – inter-generationally and inter-culturally. This suggests that
anthropological understandings of human–environmental relationships
should incorporate a greater appreciation of sensory experience and of
the part played by ‘natural’ resources and their characteristics in the
generation of meanings. It seems that meaning is the product not just of
human individuals and groups, but also of the common – and diverse –
material characteristics of their environments.

1. Some temporally and geographically diverse examples include Tylor (1873);
Durkheim (1995 [1912]); Eliade (1958); Schapera (1971); Douglas (1973);
Furst (1989); Lansing (1991); Rose (1992), Astrup (1993); Giblett (1996);
Blatter and Ingram (2001); Ogilvie and Palsson (2003); Sanders (2003);
Strauss and Orlove (2003).
2. Although any material object, including water, can be acculturated and thus

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become an ‘artefact’ (for example holy water), it is perhaps useful to draw

some distinction between objects whose form is largely the product of
human action and those whose formal qualities can and often do exist inde-
3. The actual figure is 67%, but many informants believed it to be over 80%.
This regular overestimation is interesting, in that its exaggeration suggests
that people attach a considerable level of importance to the concept of being
composed of water.
4. In arid or sub-arctic environments direct human contact with fresh water
may be limited, but even in extreme cases, such as the central Australian
deserts, there is a rich ethnography of ideas about water, the mapping of
springs and soaks, and understandings of underground movements of water
(see Rose, 1992) as well as complex cosmological ideas about rain, precipi-
tation and hydrological cycles (see Ogilvie and Palsson, 2003).
5. Schiffman also notes that the observation of visual movement can have the
same physiological effect as actual movement, thus seasickness can be
produced without the body experiencing any physical movement at all
(1996: 405).
6. A polarized concept of nature and culture is problematic, as it can be argued
that all aspects of the environment are humanized and acculturated, but I
use the term here to define objects that might be described as occurring
naturally, rather than being human-made. As noted previously (and
elsewhere, Strang, in press, b), it is more useful to consider artefacts/non-
artefacts or culture/nature as a shifting continuum.
7. The term ‘Kunjen’ encompasses several linguistic sub-groups, and there are
various linguistic models of these and their nomenclature, but the broader
term is the one most often used in Kowanyama.
8. See list of ethnographic examples given in Note 1.
9. This reflects a cultural shift towards patriarchal dominance, which simul-
taneously led to the disenfranchisement of women from collective resource
ownership, and enabled male appropriation of water resources (see Strang,
in press, a).
10. As I have noted elsewhere (Strang, 1997), errk elampungk is a Kunjen
language term that refers to the place from which an individual’s spirit child
emerged. It translates literally as ‘the home place of your image’.
11. ‘Bla we’ is Aboriginal English for ‘belonging to us’.
12. The Domesday Book lists 166 mills along the River Stour.
13. Lansing’s work on Balinese water temples (1991) provides an obvious
comparison here.
14. David Blunkett got into hot water by using the term ‘swamped’ in a
statement about asylum seekers, echoing Margaret Thatcher’s much earlier
– but equally controversial – comments about refugees.
15. Since Christianity was introduced, children may also be baptized in Church,
in accord with conventional Christian ritual practices.
16. Derbyshire, for example, now has a summer programme of over 70 well
dressings a year, and these have become important community events.
17. This is quite restrained: some rivers in the UK are said to demand as many
as three per year.
18. For example, Tylor noted the close coincidence of such stories:
The Karens of Brima say it is a spirit or demon. ‘The Rainbow can devour men
. . . When it devours a person, he dies a sudden or violent death. All persons that
die badly, by falls, by drowning, or by wild beasts, die because the Rainbow has

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devoured their ka-la or spirit. On devouring persons it becomes thirsty and comes
down to drink, when it is seen in the sky, drinking water.

The Zulu ideas correspond in a curious way with these. The rainbow lives with a
snake, that is where there is also a snake; or it is like a sheep, and dwells in a pool.
When it touches earth it is drinking at a pool. Men are afraid to wash in a large
pool; they say there is a Rainbow in it, and if a man goes in, it catches and eats
him. The Rainbow, coming out of a river or pool and resting on the ground, poisons
men whom it meets. (1873: 294)

19. Furst (1989) also records that the ‘water of life’ in the mythology of the
Kwakiutl tribes and their neighbours in British Colombia is a substance of
such supernatural potency that even a few drops will suffice to wake the
dead and revitalize them, or drive away monsters and spirits. It is given by
supernatural beings as a gift to shamans.

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◆ V E R O N I CA S T R A N G is Professor of Anthropology at the Auckland

University of Technology. Her work is primarily concerned with human–
environmental interactions and people’s relationships with land and resources,
and water has long been a central theme in her research, in Australia and in the
UK. She is the author of Uncommon Ground: Cultural Landscapes and Environ-
mental Values (Berg, 1997) and The Meaning of Water (Berg, 2004). Address: School
of Social Sciences, Auckland University of Technology, 7th Floor, 350 Queen
Street, Private Bag 92006, Auckland, New Zealand.